Benefits of internal coaching, and its future by Simon Dennis


The internal coaching program I belong to has been running over a decade: it’s managed to ride the waves of change and keep its presence alive. The value of developing coaches as part of the organization was driven from a member of the leadership team with genuine enthusiasm and passion. Coaches and coach supervisors were trained and certified. They then formed as an internal capability, alongside their functional role, to continue developing its role and find opportunities within the business to assist, for e.g. developmental programs with coaching. The key is a balance between generating and knowing how to meet the demand for coaching, and this involves initiative and enterprise.

Naturally with time, some of the coaches became fired-up and left to pursue their own coaching careers – always a risk – others stayed on and integrated coaching into their management roles but fund less time available for coaching outside of their own teams. Many learnt to balance their work with coaching, and made themselves available for coaching, as well as making themselves available for promoting coaching. But in a sense it’s still a largely hidden practice. The reality is that even today I am asked, "That coaching thing we used to do, does that still happen?"

I reflected on this as I was sharing some of our journey with Masters students, to me the biggest challenge in coaching in any form - internal or external - is the fact that the changes in behaviour that coaching can bring about often takes time, and it seems timely to share what some of these have been.

Reflecting on some of the lessons and their impact

What I’d like to share are some of those lessons and how each has had some observable behavioural impact on the individuals, and the organization:

One of the best examples any internal program would want to receive is from their whole leadership team: that they got to where they are because they have had the benefit of coaching, and then they will be huge advocates of coaching. This is still rare, but a few years ago one of our very senior leaders was quite open about the fact that coaching was fundamental to his success, and stated that without a coach, he wouldn't have got to where he was. Not many leaders will openly share this insight because ultimately that exhibits a certain vulnerability. Importantly, what we learnt was that he wasn't saying that the coach gave him all the answers. What he was saying was that by having a coach, having someone there to help him rethink problems, to help him reshape challenges in a better and smarter way, was intrinsic to his success. At no point did he say, well, the coach gave me all the answers because as we know, pure coaching is where the coach won't have the answers anyway.

In my experience coaches themselves are more content and have a sense of being able to deal with the continuous change, and deal with it reasonably successfully. Individuals who are coaches have been able to deal with change better, they tend to still have a very positive outlook. When you meet with them, they tend to be quite proactive and maybe because they coach themselves when things are difficult, they ask themselves those difficult questions, and consequently do something about it.

Coaching helps with retaining the right individual talents in the organization. Many of the clients I've coached over the years have, through some means or other, moved on to roles outside the organization, whether that's by design or by default. In some instances, in the early days of coaching, there was concern that allowing people to reach their own conclusions about their career path, explore possible alternatives, et cetera, did cause people to leave. However, through the coaching, people just came to the realization that actually what they were doing, the reason why they were uncomfortable, the lack of confidence, the reason why they were not enjoying their work, was because is it's not what they wanted to be doing. The coaching naturally led them to reflect on that, and in many cases to do something about it. It's the old adage, you want people who want to be here. Ultimately if we employ people who truly don't want to be here, however they reach that conclusion, that's a good thing for the organization, the organization wants people who want to work for the organization.

Coaching helps to build a level of resilience in the organization. I certainly see those managers who also coach and who remain in the company are resilient types and appear to be thriving. They're not necessarily in the most demanding roles in the company, they're not senior leaders in the company necessarily but they are in roles that they enjoy doing and their contributions are significant.

Immediate benefits of ‘in-the-moment’ coaching, and awareness building. We have had a number of talent programs aligned to specific roles with coaching as an add-on. People attending the talent program were told that they can work with a coach. The direct feedback from them was that it was a hugely invaluable piece of time, and it made a huge difference to their progress, to their thinking and to their approach. At the end of the program itself though, the measurements didn’t reflect what we expected: very few, if any, continued with their coaches after the program ended.

Thinking about why this might be the case, we recognized that many of the individuals employed here are pretty good and they don't need a coach (right now), they just get on with it. Having a coach was an added benefit but not necessarily something they would make time for once the program completed. We also still see coaching being misunderstood in large parts because people think of the coaches as being an expert who's going to guide you through the midst of confusion, even when we keep saying, "Well, no I can coach anybody, it's not about being an expert, it’s more about being an excellent coach."

Another consideration, particularly around measuring impact, is that even though external and internal coaches are trained on exactly the same executive coach training programme, internal coaches are a part of the business context and can coach with that insight.

Moving forward, continuing to find opportunities for engaging and aligning internal coaching with the company’s needs

From these enterprises it continues to give us some insights of where we can move coaching forward and be even more strategic in positioning its benefits within, and for, our business.

Agile coaching conversations as part of feedback. 90% of the people that we know who had coaching recognized the benefits of it, whether it's been labelled as such or not. I think that's the hard part in the sense of letting go and saying, if we do want to measure this, if we do want to measure the impact coaches are having and the number of coaching sessions, the quality and the quantity, then we need to have a way of doing it. Ultimately though, it's about the outcomes. For example, I ask my team, "How many conversations do you want, how often do you want to speak or meet with me? Do you want to timetable some time with me every week or every two weeks or every month?" I'm not saying I'm not available outside of those times but let's get something in the diary so there’s a defined time that we can just use. If they say, "You know what - once a month is fine." I am happy to set that up. But if during the once a month session I notice that there are actually more regular conversations taking place in-between times I might propose to change our scheduled conversations – making the best use of our times. And allowing me the time to prepare properly rather than having ad-hoc coaching conversations.

Work with the younger people. Some of it is already part of the corporate culture, we have a strong induction process with mentoring, buddying etc., but you could, in addition, assign a coach to help you navigate the organization and to listen to your immediate concerns without any fear of recrimination within your new team. This is something to put on the agenda to both attract young talent and minimize attrition driven by uncertainty and lack of clarity.

I'm lucky in that where I work, my boss, is also a coach and a coach supervisor. When we're talking about talent development of our people, when we’re talking about developing our younger people, we use coaching as part of the mix. This approach still isn’t as common as I would hope, which is a shame, and that’s where we see opportunity especially when we receive an email saying, “Do we still do coaching? I thought it had all disappeared.” This is something that actually needs to be owned, and managed, and administered because even if we started doing it, if no one's capturing any of it, then others don't know if it's even going on.

Resources for internal marketing. Imagine if internal coaching had marketing staff or capability, how do we get its message out to employees when people are being bombarded with about 200 emails a day? Coaching requires engagement. Starting with a story on the front page of the intranet, where it will catch the eye of most people. Then being able to follow up on the interest that might generate. People can always tick a box and say "Yes I'm aware of that" but it's when they are actually engaged that is what we need to capture. Possibly responding to areas within our global employee survey - how do we make those things more visible or do we actually use coaching to specifically address those areas?

Aligning coaching with other internal initiatives. What we're trying to do is to target the impact of coaching, what are the learning and development needs of the organization, and which ones of those can be effectively administered through coaching. For example, we have a finite volume of sales managers, if coaching is offered to them, as support for them to achieve their targets, we know how many coaches we need in order to deliver that. It's going much more down that road now. It’s important to support sustainable targets that the organization needs.

Going back to group ownership. Coaching still needs to be signposted. It's still not prominent enough for people to recognize. This typically causes all sorts of confusion, and misconceptions, particularly those who’ve been successful without coaching who consequently don’t see it as necessary or even useful. Importantly, I think it’s about how you position that and say, this isn't going to take away all the problems you've got, but it might help you think through them in a slightly more creative way. As well as continuing to have the support of leadership (particularly when it aligns with their view of growing and developing their teams) and the learning and development team.

Having a joined-up strategy. Seeing how internal coaching has developed, I think it's necessary for it to be part of the company's strategy to determine what it means by coaching in order for it to be a truly effective programme. I think an organisation needs to have a clear focus as to what are they to do, promote that and measure accordingly. Without that overall administration, if there isn’t a coordinated approach, it just becomes much harder and a more fragmented approach led by active coaches but without a measurable organisational benefit.

Differentiating social conversations with informal coaching/coaching conversations. A good example is when I recently spoke with a colleague who was retiring. We’d been working with one of our clients in Europe. During that time – mostly spare time, whilst travelling – he started chatting to me, it wasn't always the work stuff, it might be home stuff, and other stuff. Using coaching to probe and ask more questions, partly because I’m simply curious, things like "Now what?'', “What do you think is preventing you doing that?”, ”What would make that easier/more enjoyable” etc. The difference is, nobody would say, "Oh well actually I had a good coaching session with Simon over the weekend.", while we waited at the airport gate, or sat waiting for a train. They wouldn't see that as coaching and I think that's the hard thing, yet I think these types of coaching conversations go on an awful lot in the company.

This is also something that needs to be acknowledged in supervision. If we are saying these things are happening all the time, it doesn't have to be, "oh actually I'm coaching person X and we've got a room booked for an hour, and we're going to do a coaching session and then I'm going to log it". For example, if a colleague said that they were speaking to someone last week who needed to tackle this customer’s problem, and they then turned their ‘coaching head’ on and just used that powerful questioning that coaches are good at to help them. Before you know it they go away feeling slightly lighter because you're taking a bit of weight off them. They have thought through a problem because they've shared their problem. Actually you as the coach might say, “I was being a coach in that environment”. At the other end of the scale, the person receiving it might not recognize that it's had to do with coaching. The question then is, if we want to promote coaching, how do you catch or run these little things and say these are all ways of coaching. Or do we just say, it's not a problem, and just let it happen.

For example if someone there says these conversations are becoming more regular, or actually, that was a very useful conversation, and ask if maybe they could do it again sometime and bring something more specific or whatever – that would be an example of how informal coaching had started. Situations might arise where the manager might have to say, if you want to do that, why don't you get yourself a coach. Sign posting them to someone who can devote a bit more time to them, as well as having the coffee machine conversation. It's about how you do that and say it to people. When we train our managers in what we call coaching conversations, we say, if you find you've got a member in your team who responds well to this, they naturally perform better when they're undergoing some coaching then maybe recognizing that “I haven't got the time to coach them all the time then maybe it’s time to get a coach.”

To conclude, it's about every individual playing that game a little bit. I would like to think all managers would see coaching as an option all the time. That for me is what it's about, it's about saying, "Coaching is always an option.

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